Evangelical Scholarship and the Pursuit of Excellence

A Review of Andreas Köstenberger’s Excellence

When posted, guest contributor and ESN member David Leonard had recently completed a Ph.D. in philosophy and was teaching a wide range of courses at several universities in the Twin Cities.  His project at the time involved developing a taxonomy of the intellectual virtues to be used in college-level philosophy courses. David’s scholarship on virtue gave him particular insight to review the book under consideration, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue by Andreas Köstenberger, Director of PhD Studies and senior professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

Now David serves as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Luther Rice University in Atlanta, GA. Learn more in his bio below (Update: 4/30/2014).

Nearly twenty years ago, the esteemed Alvin Plantinga wrote the following words, in offering his advice to Christian philosophers:

The Christian philosopher who looks exclusively to the philosophical world at large, who thinks of himself as primarily belonging to that world, runs a two-fold risk. He may neglect an essential part of his task as a Christian philosopher; and he may find himself adopting principles and procedures that don’t comport well with his beliefs as a Christian. What is needed, once more, is autonomy and integrality. 1

Excellence Book Cover

Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Crossway, 2011)

In similar fashion, according to Andreas Köstenberger, the field of biblical studies desperately needs more evangelicals that are firmly committed to the “narrow path of scholarship and integrity.” His latest book, therefore, represents a unique and challenging contribution to the broader theme of the relationship between Christian commitment and the academic disciplines.

Excellence in Evangelical Scholarship

If George Marsden’s aim, in his provocative work, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, was to convince secular universities to take Christian scholarship more seriously, then Köstenberger’s objective, very generally, is to encourage Christian scholars to take themselves more seriously, by insisting that the terms “evangelical” and “scholarship” can be wonderfully wedded together (25). In particular, he directs his attention to young and aspiring theological students, who are “often tempted to sacrifice their integrity for academic respectability” (103).

According to Köstenberger, “pressures abound to go with the flow of scholarly consensus, and the academy often marginalizes those who buck the system” (Ibid). In other academic disciplines, such pressure is less explicit. Even in Plantinga’s field of philosophy, for example, there is more room for reasonable disagreement when it comes to fundamental issues, such that the Christian philosopher has every chance to be considered the intellectual peer of his non-Christian colleagues. Apparently such is not the case in the world of biblical studies, which explains why Köstenberger’s book will likely benefit his target audience.

Specifically, the book outlines a taxonomy of Christian virtues that are essential for evangelical scholarship. The core of this analysis is the concept of “excellence,” which Köstenberger argues is connected to the very nature of God:

God is the grounds of all true excellence. He is the one who fills any definition of excellence with meaning, and he is the reason why we cannot be content with lackluster mediocrity, halfhearted effort, or substandard scholarship…Everything God is and does is marked by excellence (34).

As a result, there are two reasons that believers should pursue excellence in their lives—because God himself is excellent and because human beings are made in his image. Regarding the latter, Köstenberger claims that “It stands to reason that as beings created in God’s image, creatures who are called to exercise representative rule over his creation, we must do so with excellence” (37). While non-Christians might find Köstenberger’s list of virtues interesting and worth emulating, the difference lies in the underlying motivation for pursuing excellence, and this is precisely what makes his approach so compelling.

The Theology of Excellence

The book is divided into four parts, with the first part laying the theological foundation of excellence, helping the reader to grasp this “overarching divine attribute that encompasses all others” (34) and how it relates to the human pursuit of excellence. Köstenberger also explores the implications of 2 Peter 1:3-11, explaining that Peter “exhorts believers to make every effort to add to their faith the qualities that will produce effectiveness in their Christian ministry and result in assurance of salvation” (44). Furthermore, he addresses the similarities between excellence and holiness, and explains how these ideals are relevant for an evangelical approach to scholarship:

As Christians who have been set apart for God’s use and called to the vocation of scholarship, we do not engage in our research as disinterested, detached observers but as individuals who have been separated from the world and made holy by a holy God…Our interest in scholarship lies not in simply exploring a topic academically. It is fueled by a quest for God’s truth for the sake of arriving at important insights, clearing up prevailing misconceptions, or both (63).

Of course, this is precisely the attitude which makes “non-confessional” biblical scholars so uncomfortable, as it seems to suggest an unwillingness to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, which inevitably leads to the unpardonable sin of scholarly partiality. The problem with this concern, however, is that it fails to recognize that everyone has biases and presuppositions that influence how they interpret reality. As such, the question begs to be asked: why prefer a non-confessional starting point to the evangelical alternative?

Scholarly Virtues

The subsequent three parts of the book cover Köstenberger’s taxonomy of virtues, specifically as they pertain to vocational, moral, and relational excellence. The format is fairly straightforward. Each chapter addresses a particular virtue, beginning with a cursory biblical exposition of the virtue, followed by a discussion and analysis of its relevance for evangelical scholarship. For example, Köstenberger challenges the reader to exercise courage in his or her academic endeavors, being unafraid of the potential consequences of practicing fidelity to Scripture. In general, this is a laudable goal for all evangelicals. But for those pursuing graduate degrees, for instance, one might be hesitant to blame students for wanting to “cushion” their theological commitments to a certain degree. After all, their ability to graduate and eventually find gainful employment is, whether one likes it or not, in the hands of their supervisors.

Elsewhere, Köstenberger addresses the virtue of creativity, which might seem unusual given the impression that evangelicals, because of the boundaries of orthodoxy, are disallowed from pursuing novel theological perspectives or interpretations. But Köstenberger argues that “once liberated from unbelief and skepticism and firmly grounded in the fear of God and his word, one will be open to explore God’s revelation in history as recorded in Scripture” (25). Later, Köstenberger clarifies his own understanding of creativity:

There is a fine line here, but I am speaking of creativity in the sense of presentation, grasping the essence of a topic, and drawing connections…Since the discipline of biblical studies is an inch wide and a mile deep, this can be a daunting task. Creative thinking is the key: drawing connections between the data that others may have overlooked. A creative scholar will not need to cross the bounds of orthodoxy in order to make an original contribution (142-43).

Furthermore, he offers some very thoughtful reflections on the virtues of integrity and fidelity, arguing that Christian scholars, above all others, should be moral exemplars in these areas. For example, one should resist the temptation to misrepresent others, and should seek to scrupulously cite outside sources, whenever appropriate (165). Also, one must practice absolute fidelity to God and Scripture, recognizing that ultimate approval comes from God, not from one’s academic colleagues (171-72). Earlier Köstenberger writes that “Our goal is to please God through excellent scholarship, rightly handling his word of truth” (94).

For many evangelicals, such insights will be extremely helpful, in terms of making plausible the pursuit of what Plantinga described as “autonomy and integrality.” Those completing graduate degrees in biblical studies, in particular, would do well to employ many of the insights of this fine book. In some ways, Köstenberger’s thesis represents an indirect response to Mark Noll’s classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. By arguing that evangelicals should be viewed as top-notch scholars in the field of biblical studies, and that confessional faith should be intimately connected to how evangelicals pursue their scholarship, Köstenberger has, in effect, argued that the evangelical mind has all the resources to be alive and well.

Further reading: The first chapter of Excellence is available for free download from Crossway

  1. Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Faith & Philosophy, Vol. 1:3 (1984), p. 264.
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David H. Leonard

Dr. David Leonard is Assistant Professor of Philosophy & Apologetics at Luther Rice University, where he teaches such courses as Critical Thinking, Worldviews, and Science and Faith. His area of specialization is epistemology, and his current project involves exploring the relevance of the intellectual virtues in higher education. He has been published in Christianity Today, CASE Magazine, and the Southern Journal of Philosophy, and has spoken at conferences for the John Templeton Foundation, Global Scholars, and the Evangelical Philosophical Society. Dr. Leonard holds the M.A. from Denver Seminary and the Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas, and blogs regularly at Calling & Culture.

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  • jssire@prodigy.net'
    James W. Sire commented on December 30, 2011 Reply

    Wow! If this review is on target, let me be the first to commend Kostenberger.

    And, perhaps, the first to add that this book added to Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind could be the critical mass that blows the Christian scholarship into maturity. Since I was an MA student at Washington State, lo these many years ago, I have longed for books like these.

    Young scholars, ATTENTION! You have thousands of times more theories and examples of Christian scholarship than I did.
    Don’t miss this opportunity to leap ahead as a “Christian” in the academic world.

    • akostenberger@sebts.edu'
      Andreas Kostenberger commented on January 2, 2012 Reply

      Thank you very much for this excellent review, David, and best wishes in your own work. Thank you also, Dr. Sire, for the encouragement. I am humbled you would take the time to comment. With deep appreciation for your pioneering work, Andreas K.

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